Purple Rain: Prince Snags His Rightful Place on the Throne
“Oh baby, I’m a star!
Might not know it now.
Baby, but I are, I’m a star!
I don’t want to stop,
Till I reach the top.”
The transformation one Prince Roger Nelson undertook onscreen to arrive at this song, “Baby, I’m A Star,” indeed heralded a celluloid moment of celebrity achievement rarely witnessed in the annals of “overnight” sensations. When the diminutive dreamer launched his all-out “Purple Rain” assault on America in 1984, he took the biggest gamble of his life. The calling card of a knockout soundtrack, a blockbuster tour, and of course, the semi-autobiographical presentation of his own life on film, was audacious and wholly unique. Up to that point, most people simply categorized this artist, then known as Prince, as a sexually-stoked androgenous pop singer with a few novelty hits under his belt. Who was this guy kidding, putting out a movie about himself? Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was dominating the charts, the Gloved One had blown everyone away moonwalking at the Motown appearance, and the King of Pop seemed a more likely choice to star in his own filmed extravaganza than this little prince. Who did this purple dude think he was?
He was an extremely versatile and disciplined musician with a soul full of swelling confidence — that’s who he was. Like a similar struggling Material Girl clambering up the pop ladder to success at this time, Prince never seemed to doubt his abilities or vision. It takes a plentiful dose of ego to place the blinders on and myopically trudge to the summit. Oftentimes, this focus results in leaving others behind. For Prince, all that mattered to him was his music. Friends were interchangeable and his broken family merely acted as a creative wound to draw from for the sake of his art. Life for Prince was geared to attaining success the second he began putting his mind to it.
While the story of the film “Purple Rain” is entirely fiction, it does highlight many aspects of Prince’s surroundings and upbringing in the Minneapolis, Minnesota environs. The main character, called The Kid, is an intensely private individual whose personality has been shaped by an abusive father and emotionally-detached mother. He has turned to music as his only outlet for connection to the world. His outlook on women leans toward the sexist, and it is only through his music that he finds a nurturing bond with one particular female. Arguably, these synopses summed up the psychic foundation of Prince’s own life.
His father might have been violent. When Oprah Winfrey asked Prince in 1996, “Your father was an abusive man, right?,” he replied, “He had his moments.” John Nelson had been an accomplished jazz pianist, leader of the Prince Roger Jazz Trio in the 1950s, when he hired and subsequently married a singer named Mattie Shaw. Mattie was 16 years’ John’s junior, and she soon retired from singing to raise her family. Prince was born on June 7, 1958, named Prince Roger Nelson, and was raised on the north side of Minneapolis. “I grew up on the borderline. I had a bunch of white friends, and I had a bunch of black friends,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “I never grew up in any one particular culture.” From an early age, he was extremely withdrawn and self-absorbed. His father was distant as well, and by age seven, Prince saw his dad leave his mom for good. The senior Nelson also left behind his piano.
Young Prince taught himself to master the keyboards. When Oprah asked him what was the first song he was able to play, Prince cranked out the theme to TV’s “Batman” show for her. His fascination with the Batman franchise would later yield him a number one album and song when he composed the music to Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie in 1989. His musical ear led him to other instruments, such as the guitar and drums. Other interests included sports. But his growth in that arena was overshadowed by his brother Duane. Prince told the Los Angeles Times, “My older brother was the basketball star. He always had girls around him. I think I must have been on a jealous trip, because I got out of sports.” Focus soon turned entirely on the desire to play his music.
His mother remarried, and Prince’s stepfather took him to a local concert at age 12. Seeing the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown, burn up the stage and enthrall an audience lit the fuse on Prince’s aspirations. Tensions with his new Dad sent Prince running to the home of his real dad, John Nelson. But the stay was short-lived. Prince has often related the story of how he was thrown out of his father’s home only to plead on a payphone to come back. His father’s rejection of his request was emotionally-scarring to say the least. Years of flopping with various family members and friends ensued. “I ran away from home when I was twelve,” he confirmed to Rolling Stone magazine in 1981. “I‘ve changed address in Minneapolis thirty-two times, and there was a great deal of loneliness.”
He soon settled in the basement of friend Andre Anderson’s home and was raised through his teens by Andre’s mom Bernadette. With rabbit fur and mirrors decorating his new pad, Prince spent practically everyday holed up composing his own songs. He started a band called Grand Central with several school chums, one of whom had a cousin named Morris Day who sat in for the band on drums. Once in high school, the group changed its name to Champagne. Playing for school gigs and local dances, Prince’s band would oftentimes face off against other funk groups in town, primarily an outfit named Flyte Time. When he was interviewed by his school newspaper in 1976, Prince was already looking beyond the Midwest. “I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good. Mainly because there aren’t any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now.”
He yearned to break out. His flamboyant manner of dress and the musicians he hung with were already pegging him as an outsider in school. “People would say something about our clothes or the way we looked or who we were with and we’d end up fighting,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was a very good fighter. I never lost. I don’t know if I fight fair, but I go for it.” Graduating at age 18, Prince blasted out of school, and never looked back. He also dropped out of his band. “We basically got all the new music and dances three months late, so I just decided that I was gonna do my own thing,” he related to Rolling Stone. “The white radio stations were mostly country, and the one black radio station was really boring to me.” He hooked up with a local British ex-patriot named Chris Moon who owned a recording studio, Moon Sound, Inc. Because of his versatility, Prince was able to play many instruments for commercial takes Moon recorded at his studio. In return, Moon allowed Prince keys to the palace.
Moon soon told a local ad agency owner named Owen Husney about the talented protégé laying down tracks at his studio. Husney left his million-dollar agency and began managing Prince. After cutting demos, assembling presskits, and wooing record labels in Los Angeles, Warner Bros. Records sealed a deal with the 19-year old Minnesota musician, and Prince was soon producing his own album at a studio in Sausalito, California. After a long 6 months of recording, this debut album, “For You,” was released in April 1978. The project had been overseen by veteran engineer Tommy Vicari, but a print error on the record sleeve gave the one and only Prince sole credit. The album sold a respectable $100,000 worth of units and entered the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Prince put together a band to tour that included his teen friend Andre Anderson (now Andre Cymone), and future Revolution musicians, drummer Bobby Z and keyboardist Matt Fink.
In 1979, Prince released his second album, “Prince,” an effort that only took six weeks to record. With a number one single on the R&B chart, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the album sold over a million copies. Again, another collaborator, this time Prince’s old friend Andre Cymone, had his credit for singing on a song deleted, and Prince seemed to be the only one in command of his albums. Cymone and his buddy had a subsequent falling out. On the flip side, an accomplished pianist named Lisa Coleman soon joined the band. Prince let go of his manager Owen Husney, and opted for a more high-powered representation with Bob Cavallo, Joe Ruffalo and Steve Fargnoli.
With the advent of New Wave, Prince added more of a synth sound to his music for the next album effort, “Dirty Mind,” released in October 1980. His penchant for spicing up his lyric content with songs like “Head” (about oral sex) and “Sister” (about loving incest) propelled him into the category of ‘controversial’ in some sectors of the entertainment media. Sporting leopard-skin bikini briefs and thigh high boots, he certainly caught the attention of his female fans during the subsequent “Dirty Mind” tour.
In an effort to bolster the importance of music in the Minneapolis scene, and in essence, to help create a myth surrounding his own persona, Prince formed side bands. Producing members of his rival group Flyte Time, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Prince molded them into The Time, fronted by his old drumming pal Morris Day. Inspired by a new lady in his life named Denise Matthews, he christened her Vanity and gave her two backing singers for a band of her own called Vanity 6 (originally named The Hookers). Continuing with his own output of material, Prince released the album “Controversy” in October 1981. While the title track received decent airplay, tunes like “Jack U Off” and “Do Me, Baby” made radio programmers file the album in the off-air, guilty pleasure bin.
Still eschewing the help of others, Prince submerged himself in the basement of his new purple home in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the summer of 1982. He elaborated to Rolling Stone magazine about the noticeable lack of fellow artists on his albums: “The reason I don’t use musicians a lot of the time had to do with the hours that I worked. I swear to God it’s not out of boldness when I say this, but there’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can. Music is what keeps me awake. There will be times when I’ve been working in the studio for twenty-four hours and I’ll be falling asleep in the chair, but I’ll still be able to tell the engineer what cut I want to make. I use engineers in shifts a lot of the time because when I start something, I like to go all the way through. There are very few musicians who will stay awake that long.”
He modestly elaborated his isolationist stance further in a talk with a Detroit DJ named Electrifying Mojo in 1985: “I worked a long time under a lot of different people, and most of the time I was doing it their way. I mean, that was cool, but ya know, I figured if I worked hard enough and kept my head straight, one day I’d get to do this on my own…and that’s what happened. So I feel like…if I don’t try to hurt nobody…and like I say…keep my head on straight…my way usually is the best way.”
Prince emerged from his basement in the fall of 1982 with the double album “1999.” For the first time in his career, two of his singles, the title tune and “Little Red Corvette,” received favorable airplay on both R&B and Top-40 stations. MTV put both videos into heavy rotation. Prince was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone with Vanity, and the magazine named him rock artist of 1982. Whereas, the majority of artists sputter after a few hits, slowly slinking back into the oblivious consciousness of America, Prince had gotten to the on-deck circle, and now he was shuffling from foot to foot, warming up to hit one out of the park.
His band, now formally named The Revolution, went back on the road with Vanity 6 and The Time to support “1999.” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had been pining to work on side ventures of their own, and when they were stranded in a snowbound Atlanta, producing a song for the group The SOS Band, The Time fired them for missing a gig. The duo went on to start a record label of their own, Flyte Time, and produced some of the hottest singles of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, including many of Janet Jackson’s hits. A childhood chum of Lisa Coleman’s, guitarist Wendy Melvoin, joined the Revolution during this period, and her sister Susannah purportedly caught the eye of his Purple Badness. Vanity was not amused.
The introverted Prince had always scribbled notes, diary entries, and lyrics wherever he went. Throughout the “1999” tour, he was assembling thoughts in a purple notebook about his life’s story. Newly-hired tour manager Alan Leeds told Icon Magazine about his initial impressions of his boss around this time: “The person I met was suspicious and paranoid of people and life in general, and was sarcastic and cynical and clearly troubled by his personal demons. And, of course, the more we learned about his background – his mother basically walked away from him, and his father struggled to raise him and threw in the towel, and the kinds of rejection he suffered as a youngster – it certainly doesn’t add up to a very secure, well-rounded individual.” Prince was on the verge of revealing all of these insecurities to the world.
As early as 1980, Prince had been toying with his autobiography. Lisa Coleman said in the book “Purple Reign,” (authored by Liz Jones), “When I first joined Prince back in the days of “Dirty Mind,” he was already talking about his ideas for what would be “Purple Rain.” An Emmy-winning television screenwriter named William Blinn, who had written the TV-movie “Brian’s Song” and a segment of the landmark “Roots” mini-series, was contacted by Prince’s management in 1982 to write a script. He met Prince in a Hollywood restaurant. “He’s not purposefully face-to-the-wall, but casual conversation is not what he’s good at,” Blinn told Rolling Stone magazine. “It was as if I asked someone what they wanted for dinner, and they said they weren’t sure, but they’d like it to have some tomatoes in it, and some beef, and some onions. And I’d say, ‘I think we’re talking about beef stew here.”
Blinn sussed out a big part of what Prince was trying to convey in the movie’s main theme, primarily his anguished relationship with his father John Nelson. “It was as if we were sorting out his own mystery – an honest quest to figure himself out,” Blinn illustrated to Rolling Stone. “He saved all the money on shrinks and put it in the movie. Music is obviously a cloak and a shield and a whole bunch of things for him. It’s a womb.” By the early summer of 1983, Blinn had knocked off two drafts of the script, then titled “Dreams,” for Prince. The perfectionist in the Artist sensed the tale was not completely up to snuff. Lisa and Wendy were relieved when a steamy lesbian scene between them was later snipped from the final draft.
Meanwhile, Prince had been concocting a few tunes he felt would work well in the final concert sequence of the picture. A local club in Minneapolis that Prince and the Revolution had frequented, called the First Avenue, held a charitable event for the Minnesota Dance Theater in August 1983. Prince and his band showed up with a mobile recording van, ready to capture the sounds of his new songs, “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby, I’m A Star,” and “Purple Rain,” before a live audience. Alan Leeds said in the book “Purple Reign,” “It was very hot and humid. Prince took to the stage like a boxer to the ring. “Purple Rain” brought the house down. That’s the version on the album. Thank God we got it on tape.”
Having cast his entire coterie of musical chums for the various roles in the film, Prince’s band of non-actors suddenly needed to learn the ways of the thespian craft. Prince hired a local actor named Don Amendolia to give everyone acting classes 3 times a week beginning in August. “Morris Day wasn’t as interested as some others,” Amendolia related to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “but he had natural abilities that the others didn’t have. Vanity was lazy. She’s so beautiful and she’s good – but she didn’t like to work hard. Prince was very, very good. He’d flip right out of his persona and be whatever character he had to be. He’s very shy, as most actors are to a degree. He took direction well, probably the best. He asked a lot of questions.” Choreographer John Command was hired to drill six years’ worth of dancing into six months training for the unskilled rockers.
Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli scrambled to put together a budget. They received four million dollars from Warner Bros. Records’ head Mo Ostin and were desperately shopping the script around Hollywood for their client. The problem was, outside of the teen market and dance clubs, not many suits sitting behind the studio desks had ever heard of a guy named Prince. It was an extremely hard sell. The managers even had a difficult time convincing the film division of Warner Bros. to swallow the concept. But the hook finally took, and soon the studio coughed up the remaining demands on the budget. “Purple Rain” mustered $7 million in backing. Now they needed a director.
A highly-stylized teen picture named “Reckless,” starring a young Darryl Hannah and Aidan Quinn, was in its final stages of post-production in Hollywood. The director, James Foley, was approached to helm “Purple Rain.” He gracefully bowed out but suggested “Reckless’” editor, Albert Magnoli, for the task. Magnoli, a 30-year old former film student, had never directed a feature motion picture before. He met with Prince’s management, only to give some script ideas he had for their project, but after ten minutes into their meeting, Magnoli wanted the gig. He described his initial introduction with his Purple Highness to Rolling Stone: “We had dinner and he let me speak for about twenty-five minutes, and I began working off what was emanating from him. And I got very involved with the parents at that point: the father became a musician, the mother became sort of a woman walking the streets, things like that; I was just basically watching the person in front of me, just feeling what that was all about. And at the end, he said, ‘Okay, let’s take a ride.’ So we took a ride, and he said, ‘I don’t get it. This is the first time I’ve met you, but you’ve told me more about what I’ve experienced than anyone in my life.” Magnoli nailed the job.
To capture the full sound he desired for his new set of tunes, Prince poured $450,000 towards turning a barren warehouse into a state-of-the-art recording studio. He proceeded to record songs like “Computer Blue” and the frothy anthem “Let’s Go Crazy.” Prince explained to Musician Magazine in 1997 how he was still quite gunshy about expressing his full inspirations in songs during this period: “My original draft of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was much different from the version that wound up being released. As I wrote it, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was about God and the de-elevation of sin. But the problem was that religion as a subject is taboo in pop music. People think that the records they release have got to be hip, but what I need to do is to tell the truth.”
Nevertheless, Prince started the song with a sermon of hope. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here 2day 2 get through this thing called life/Electric word life/It means 4ever and that’s a mighty long time/But I’m here 2 tell U there’s somethin’ else/The afterworld/A world of never-ending happiness.” A backward track following the cut “Darling Nikki” wound up revealing the words “Hello, how are U? I’m fine cuz I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon.” With the title tune, the majestic “Purple Rain,” Prince was inventing a passion for the violet hue that would be associated with him for years to come. Other lyrics, such as “Dream if U can a courtyard/An ocean of violets in bloom” from the song “When Doves Cry,” and “Let’s look 4 the purple banana till they put us in the truck,” from “Let’s Go Crazy” also supported his color-based motif.
Director Magnoli was frantically churning out a revised screenplay over the month of August in a Minneapolis hotel. He hung with Morris Day, who would play the leader of a rival band, and Vanity, who was slated to play Prince’s girlfriend in the film. The story still centered on the title character of The Kid, that of Prince as a sensitive artist with an abusive father and an abused mother. To escape his brutal home life, The Kid winds up competing for a slot in the three-group rotation of house bands at a local club in town (the First Avenue). He is enamored of a lead singer in a rival group, yet the abusive tendencies he has learned from his father threatens to jeopardize his love for this new lady in his life. At the conclusion, after severely beating his wife, The Kid’s father tries to commit suicide unsuccessfully, and The Kid rises above his flawed traits to win a music contest, and presumably, gain the respect of his woman.
Many people thought that the father in “Purple Rain,” portrayed by Clarence Williams III, closely mirrored John Nelson. Prince clarified the comparisons to Rolling Stone magazine in 1985: “That stuff about my dad was part of (director/co-writer) Al Magnoli’s story. We used parts of my past and present to make the story pop more, but it was a story. My dad wouldn’t have nothing to do with guns. He never swore, still doesn’t, and never drinks.” As for the nightclub First Avenue, the former bus depot, was, of course, an actual hangout in downtown Minneapolis. In the film, the club is owned and the bands are booked by Billy, a grumpy African-American who wears a flashy tracksuit and white sunglasses. In reality, the club’s booker was owner Steve McClellan, a father-figure white guy, who never had requisite ‘house’ bands for his club. Many groups played First Avenue over the course of any given month, each differing in style, like rock, funk, folk, and dance.
Pre-production on “Purple Rain” officially commenced on September 15, 1983. And it was around this time that Vanity chose to leave the film. Whether she was miffed about Prince’s flirtations with Susannah Melvoin or whether she simply wanted to venture out on a solo career is debatable. But she did mention that “they wouldn’t pay me enough money to go through the crap I would have to go through.” Vanity went on to release solo work, act in a handful of movies, and then she changed direction in life, becoming a born-again evangelist in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, a frantic search for a replacement resulted in over 700 women being auditioned. A Los Angeles photo model named Patricia Kotero landed the role. Prince immediately became her mentor, renaming her Apollonia and altering the moniker of Vanity’s old band to Apollonia 6.
Susan Rogers, an engineer for the recording of “Purple Rain,” rather succinctly said in the “Purple Reign” book, “Apollonia couldn’t sing.” Keyboardist Matt Fink also told the book’s author, “Yeah, the Vanitys and the Apollonias bothered me. I thought, ‘Prince, you could be surrounding yourself with and producing extremely talented people, not people who were there for their looks rather than their singing capabilities.’ The whole band found it annoying, but you had to bite your tongue and let it go.” Wendy Coleman also chimed in. “There is no question that was very frustrating. Prince would take these women who didn’t have much of anything apart from the ability to emote a great amount of sexuality. I used to scoff at that – like, what are you wasting your time with this woman for? But then I realized he is not in the business just strictly for the music, no matter what he tells you. He’s also in it to entertain.” Apollonia stayed, she sang “Take Me With U,” and the chemistry between her and Prince onscreen proved to be more successful than anyone could’ve predicted.
Cameras finally rolled on November 1, 1983. It was in the heart of winter. A Minnesota winter, mind you. A scene in which Prince’s character toys with his lover, forcing her to skinny-dip in a lake was shot in this cold Minnesota winter. Poor Apollonia took the plunge on a day when the temperature was 20 degrees outside. The First Avenue club closed its doors to the general public for three weeks of interior shooting during December. For the most part, all of the musicians did not have to stretch their acting abilities very far to support the thin plot. Prince, however, did a commendable job, playing the distant, narcissistic lead character who slowly draws us into empathy with his screwed-up home life. Later asked by Oprah Winfrey which scene in “Purple Rain” was the most autobiographical for him, Prince responded, “I’ll say that it was probably the scene with – with me looking at my mother, crying.” Indeed, the pain on his face reads palpably, as he strikes back at his out-of-control father.
Seven weeks of on-location shooting finally wrapped around Christmas 1983, and after a few scenes were lensed in Los Angeles over the following weeks, “Purple Rain” was prepped for release. Prince spent the majority of his time in the first six months of 1984 tinkering with his new soundtrack album and his new movie. His ambition and a huge part of his soul were about to be exposed to the public. Would anyone care about this artist called Prince?
The record was released in June, and the reclusive musician held his breath. He told Paper Magazine in 1999, “Apollonia and I slept under a hotel table waiting for the reviews of “Purple Rain” (the album). We were so excited we couldn’t sleep. When we saw them, they were all good.” And record sales figures proved the critics were right. The first single from the album, “When Doves Cry,” jumped into the Billboard Hot 100 at number 57 on June 2nd. By July 7th it was firmly lodged at number one, where it stayed for 5 weeks.
Lionel Richie, Stevie Nicks, John Cougar Mellencamp, The Talking Heads, Kiss, Devo. They all showed up at Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California for the premiere of the movie “Purple Rain” in July. The film experience knocked the socks off everybody who attended. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s Mikal Gilmore summed up the vibe of the night by asserting that Prince “dominates the screen with all the allure, menace and vulnerability that made Marlon Brando so irrefutable in ‘The Wild One,’ and for anybody expecting merely high-tech concert fare or sexual peacockery, his performance will prove astonishing and unforgettable.”
The album rocketed up the chart shortly after the film’s general release, booting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” off the top spot on August 4, 1984. The album remained perched at number one for 24 consecutive weeks. In its first three days of release during the weekend of July 27, 1984, “Purple Rain,” the movie, took in $7.8 million, and four weeks later, it K-Oed Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” out of the number one box office position in the country. The album’s follow-up single, “Let’s Go Crazy,” zoomed into the Billboard chart at number 45 and rose to number one for 2 weeks following September 29, 1984. Three other singles from the stupendous album hit the chart over the following months: “Purple Rain” climbed to number 2 in November, “I Would Die 4 U” trotted to number 8 in February 1985, and “Take Me With U” chugged to number 25 in March 1985.
For many new fans, it appeared as if Prince had fluttered into their collective conscious overnight. For an artist who was used to capturing a few million dollars for his first five albums combined, the cash register ring of over $13 million for his new effort was justification that his confidence in offering up his “life’s story” had been worth the risk. The film grossed over $80 million. And on November 4, 1985, Prince launched a 32-city Purple Rain Tour out of Detroit.
The audacious showman gave the audience what they craved – all of the songs from the “Purple Rain” soundtrack. He climbed into a bathtub onstage, stroked his guitar until fluid shot from its neck, and body-humped the floorboards with wild abandon. His virtuoso guitarwork shined, and critics fell over themselves to laud him as the next Jimi Hendrix. Prince preferred to be compared with Carlos Santana. Be that as it may, 1,692,000 ticketholders merely crowned him the new king of funk-rock. Three Grammy Awards were handed to him in February 1985, and in March, he received the Academy Award for Best Song.
Of course, with popularity came a small swell of backlash. Many women felt Prince’s treatment of females in his movie was overtly sexist. One female character is seen being shoved headfirst into a garbage dumpster. Prince responded to these criticisms on MTV in 1985: “Violence is something that happens in everyday life, and we were only telling a story. I wish it was looked at that way, because I don’t think anything we did was unnecessary. Sometimes, for the sake of humor, we may’ve gone overboard. And if that was the case, then I’m sorry, but it was not the intention.”
A notable policy was enacted in the recording industry as a result of Prince’s landmark album release. Tipper Gore, wife of 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, wrote in her book “Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society,” “I purchased Prince’s best-selling album ‘Purple Rain’ for my 11-year old daughter. I had seen Prince on the cover of magazines, and I knew that he was the biggest pop idol in years. My daughter wanted his album because she had heard the single ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ on the radio. But when we brought the album home, put it on the stereo, and listened to it together, we heard the words to another song, ‘Darling Nikki’: ‘I knew a girl named Nikki/Guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine.’ I couldn’t believe my ears! The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I was stunned – then I got mad! Millions of Americans were buying ‘Purple Rain’ with no idea what to expect.”
Tipper subsequently launched a campaign to force the record companies to label their albums with warning stickers denoting explicit language. This practice continues today. Prince commented on the whole Tipper scenario in 1997 on CNN’s Showbiz Today: “I wonder what she’s thinking now. That’s pretty lightweight compared to what’s happening right now.” He went on to say, though, that he approved of the warning label practice. “That’s very good. So, if I’m responsible, then I’m glad.”
The whirlwind notoriety and the swift ascent to fame surrounding Prince during the months of early 1985 brought with it the seeds of doubt. As Prince later related to Paper Magazine, “We looked around and I knew we were lost. There was no place to go but down. You can never satisfy the need after that.” By May 1985, as the tour was winding up, the shy, withdrawn Prince was reaching the end of his tether. “I was doing the 75th ‘Purple Rain’ show, doing the same thing over and over – for the same kids who go to Spice Girls shows,” he told Icon Magazine in 1998. “And I just lost it. I said: ‘I can’t do it!’ They were putting the guitar on me and it hit me in the eye and cut me and blood started going down my shirt. And I said, ‘I have to go onstage,’ but I knew I had to get away from all that. I couldn’t play the game.”
At the conclusion of the Purple Rain Tour, Prince announced he would never tour again. He retreated to a new recording studio, a place he called Paisley Park. The huge complex had a dutiful, loyal staff, high fences, and security guards. Paisley Park also became the name of Prince’s label for Warner Bros. After three months of recuperation, the creative musician took to the soundboard once again, this time with a new direction in mind. The album “Around The World In a Day” was more psychedelic in nature, as if Prince purposefully wanted to distance himself from the hard-driving dance-rock of “Purple Rain.”
He told Entertainment Weekly in 1999, “In some ways, (Purple Rain) was more detrimental than good…People’s perception of me changed after that, and it pigeonholed me. I saw kids coming to concerts who screamed just because that’s where the audience screamed in the movie. That’s why I did ‘Around The World In A Day,’ to totally change that. I wanted not to be pigeonholed.” This follow-up album went to number 1 for three weeks in June 1985. Prince’s newfound fans were a bit baffled by the record’s trippy sound, but the album’s singles “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life” rose to number 2 and 7 respectively on the Billboard chart all the same. Contrary to his earlier announcement, Prince toured extensively to support many of his albums over the years.
His next film “Under The Cherry Moon” was a resounding flop. The soundtrack to the movie, titled “Parade,” yielded the number one smash “Kiss,” in April 1986 but quickly fell off the charts. Prince seemed to want to discard those memories and friends whom he associated with his old formulas. While touring with The Revolution for the “Parade” album, Wendy Melvoin said in the “Purple Reign” book, “We had a sense it would be the last time we’d be on stage together. He broke all his guitars – he’d never smashed guitars before. We never played with him again.”
The Revolution was disbanded in late 1986. Prince would work with other incarnations of a backing band, notably the New Power Generation. And he would score number one successes with the singles “Batdance” in 1989 (along with the chart-topping “Batman” soundtrack) and “Cream” in 1991. But the promise of his powerhouse breakthrough in 1984 seemed to dwindle away as time marched into the 1990s. When he wasn’t churning out an uneven album’s worth of material at a dizzying rate, he was battling various record companies and Internet sites over copyright issues and royalty residuals. Then, there was that whole period of a name change, which resulted in his moniker being that of a symbol, a move which further isolated him from a decreasingly-enthusiastic fan base. By the end of the millenium, the Artist we’ll always assume is Prince had officially released nearly 35 hours of music and was finally settled down, seemingly blissful in a marriage with a woman named Mayte and playing the real-life role of a new father.
Prince’s talent for crafting scintillating songs and heartfelt ballads has not diminished in recent years. The problem, some say, lies in the fact that he puts too many mediocre tunes on each album, diluting the overall impact of the listening experience. The hysteria surrounding “Purple Rain” in 1984 indisputably provided this Artist with one of rock’s most triumphant breakthroughs. The music and the movie still retain the quality and rewards that Prince originally poured into their creation. Prince is certainly not going to fade away. The overwhelmingly self-confident personality knows he still retains bragging rights to muster the magic it takes to score one more hit. He summed it all up appropriately enough, at the pinnacle of his career in 1985 to Rolling Stone magazine. “In peoples’ minds, it all boils down to ‘Is Prince getting too big for his breeches?’ I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad. I wouldn’t have got into the business if I didn’t think I was bad.”
© 2000 Ned Truslow